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The Starving Baker for Teachers

starving baker

Imagine if you will.  You visit a bakery not far from your home. It’s new. You know you’re going to love this place because they’ve hired a new baker who has recipes for breads, pastries, donuts, cakes and cinnamon rolls that are to die for.

Word has gotten out about this bakery. Crowds start forming lines each day, waiting for the new confections to come from this baker’s marvelous kitchen. After you purchase your cinnamon roll, you sit down to watch this baker in action—and you notice something right away. The baker doesn’t seem to have enough help. Everyday, he ends up trying to serve all the customers himself. He is scurrying back and forth, busy with all the requests of the people—but oblivious to what’s happening to him. His exhaustion is quickly becoming burn out. What’s worse, as you watch him for a few weeks, you see a change. This man is getting thin. Very thin. It almost seems like he is shriveling up. What’s the deal?

Suddenly, the problem becomes obvious to you. This man never stops to eat. The irony is, he is so busy serving bread to everyone else, he never stops to eat anything he serves. With food all around him, he is starving. Hmmm. Sound familiar?

This is a portrait of me
When I started teaching in 1979, I soon became so consumed with creating an excellent program—the right environment, studies, lesson plans or lectures each week—that I never recognized what was happening to me. My work became everything to me—it was my identity. And the reason I didn’t see any problem with this is because it was all under the guise of serving kids. After all—isn’t that a good thing?  How could serving be unhealthy? And besides, the parents were clapping for me. Wasn’t this equal to the blessing of God? I couldn’t see the difference between the adrenaline of flattery and the authentic fulfillment of healthy work. What’s more, the satisfaction of seeing results from my work numbed me to the starving condition I was in.

In short, I never saw what was coming. I was blinded by the fact that I’d been taught all my life to “lose myself in service to others.” (And, by the way, I still believe in that philosophy). Sadly, my entire life was about feeding others and I’d run out of fuel along the way. I was now serving people on an empty tank. My symptoms? I began to resent the meetings I had to attend. My attitude went south. I got irritated with my colleagues. I ran short on patience with my students. I was exhausted all the time. I was hiding behind the noble act of teaching, feeling like a martyr. As stupid as this may sound, I thought it would look selfish to take some down time for myself.

It all came to a climax one afternoon more than twenty years ago as I stood in my home alone. My wife and I had purchased this home two years earlier. In our subdivision, the builders put the front lawn in, but left the back yard to the homeowner. In other words, the back lot was just dirt, rocks and tumbleweeds. Fortunately, those builders put a six foot high fence around the back yard—so no one could see it. That was great news for me at the time. I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t put any lawn or shrubs in that back yard for over two years.

On that afternoon, I stood looking out of my sliding glass window at my back lot, thinking I should really put in a lawn. In that moment, it all suddenly dawned on me. A reality hit me like a load of bricks: I had treated my life like I had treated my lawn.

Over the next few minutes, the layers of this reality unfolded. My front lawn—the part that everyone can see—looked marvelous. The grass, bushes and trees were all beautiful. Similarly, my public role as a teacher was great: my lesson plans, my style, my teaching techniques, my programs. The show was good. But the back area—the private part—was dirt. And I neglected it because no one could see it. Ouch. In that moment, I realized I couldn’t sustain my current mode of operation. I was obsessed with my public work, but it was not coming out of the overflow of a full private life. I was a starving baker.

I am not alone in this dilemma
So many leaders—in a variety of disciplines—fail to tend to themselves, and eventually are unable to really serve others. Educators. Pastors. CEOs. Doctors. Politicians. They are starving intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. When they do read books, magazines, their Bibles, or listen to CDs or podcasts, it is always for someone else. They are always preparing some program for others. They read for “program’ not for personal growth. They neglect to consume the nourishment and apply it to their own lives. Their “talk” is great. Their “walk” becomes fake. They go through the motions, but don’t really spend time digesting anything.

Starving bakers—so close to food, yet never eating. During the 19th century, Dwight Moody founded a Bible College because he saw this dilemma in among church leaders. He put it this way: “The greatest problem among ministers in my generation is they are trafficking unlived truth.”

“The Starving Baker” is a “Habitude.” Habitudes are images that form leadership habits and attitudes. Habitudes™ is a book series I am hoping will restore healthy leadership to our schools. “The Starving Baker” is simply a picture I hope you heed as I did. I hope it haunts you in a wonderful way the rest of your life. It simply reminds us that leaders must feed themselves before they feed anyone else. It’s actually the most selfless thing you can do. By feeding yourself, you enter your classroom full, speaking out of the overflow, instead of from yesterday’s “lesson plans.” I believe becoming a “starving baker” is the greatest occupational hazard for teachers and leaders.

So, Where Do We Begin?
When I recognized this struggle in my life, I decided to go back to the basics. I determined to develop a plan for personal growth. I am embarrassed to say, I had drifted from this discipline in the busyness of my career. Every year since 1987, I have taken a day in January and spent time alone reviewing the previous year and previewing the next year. My review involves looking over my past goals and accomplishments. My preview involves setting some new goals in the areas I really wish to grow in the coming year.

For instance, this year I decided I wanted to grow in six areas. Some were repeats form the last year; some were new. My six areas are: communication skills, leadership, financial investments, the art of negotiating, marketing and writing. In other words, just like a restaurant plans what to offer on their menu, I planned a menu for personal growth.

Next, I began choosing books I would read this year. I read two books a month. One to help me in these categories, and the other for pure personal growth—ones that will help me be a better husband, a better dad, a better man. I am growing as a teacher and as a person.

Third, I chose teaching CDs and DVDs I would listen to and watch for growth. Almost every time I drive somewhere, I am listening to a great speech or lecture or sermon in one of these categories. The console of my car is filled with discs that I listen to in route to my destination. I drive a university on wheels.

Fourth, once I determined the six areas in which I wanted to grow, I chose six people who could be mentors or coaches for me in those areas. I didn’t ask any one person to be an all-encompassing guru, like Socrates or Plato. I simply asked each person to meet me for lunch on a regular basis and allow me to ask them questions in the specific area I felt they had expertise. None of them turned me down. Those lunches are simple, informal and always fulfilling. I think it is a win/win conversation for both of us.

Finally, I am always on the lookout for new insights and resources in the areas I have chosen to “eat” this year. My food may come from a magazine (I subscribe to nine of them), or a friend, or a new acquaintance I meet out of town on a trip. Once I know what I wish to digest, the food for this starving baker seems to be everywhere. It reminds me of the old adage: When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.

This is Not Selfish
I just returned from a trip to China. As our jet taxied on the runway, the flight attendant stood up to give the little safety speech airlines always give. You know the speech—the one about seatbelts, exits and seat cushions. I paid close attention to one part of the speech. It is the part about the oxygen masks that drop down from the ceiling in case of an emergency. Do you remember what they always tell you to do when that happens? They tell you to put the mask on yourself first before trying to help anyone else. Hmmm. Do you know what I noticed when the flight attendant gave those directions? Not one person on that flight stood up and griped, “Well, that just sounds very selfish to put the mask on myself first. I can’t believe you’d tell us to do such a selfish thing.”

Of course no one responded that way. Why? Because we all know a person won’t be able to help anyone for long if they don’t place the oxygen mask on themselves first. Bingo. That’s all I am saying to you. Don’t be a starving baker. You have to feed yourself before you feed anyone else.


1.  Why do so many educators become starving bakers? Why do we fail to stop and refresh ourselves?

2.  What are some activities you do regularly that “feed” you personally and professionally?



  1. Adam Kolosik on September 9, 2011 at 8:52 am

    I think this is so common among pastors. I spend a lot of time reading for personal growth, and sometimes I do feel selfish about it, but I know that it will help my ability to lead others if I take care of my personal growth and lead myself before I look to lead anyone else.

    • Tim Elmore on September 9, 2011 at 9:57 pm

      So true – it’s so easy to get caught up in meeting the needs of others in ministry as well. It is essential for the long-term to be feeding yourself regularly – the best place to lead is out of overflow, not scarcity!

  2. RJPatterson on September 9, 2011 at 9:28 am

    This is rather like the pre-flight instructions you get on an jet plane where they tell you what to do in the event of a loss of cabin pressure.  When the oxygen masks fall down from the console above, first put one on yourself, and then on your children.

  3. Mike on September 9, 2011 at 12:49 pm

    VERY powerful thoughts for my day Tim!…. thank you, for the sharpening!…..

    • Tim Elmore on September 9, 2011 at 10:00 pm

      Thanks for reading Mike – glad you found it helpful!

  4. Claire Young on September 9, 2011 at 2:27 pm

    Thank you SOO much- needed the reminder for sure!

    • Tim Elmore on September 9, 2011 at 10:02 pm

      Thanks for reading and taking time to comment!

  5. Claire Young on September 9, 2011 at 2:27 pm

    Wow thank you soo much! Really needed this reminder

  6. Peterwj on September 9, 2011 at 3:45 pm

    Why about just time to rest? All this still sounds wonderful and to be honest hardly new ground. Professional and personal development are both critical but it all still sounds like a path to burnout without referencing our very real need for rest, recreation and recovery. Sometimes personal development just sounds like MORE work, just dressed differently, with altered priorities. All this rush to be improved…what about just being yourself! To me that is far more authentic…

    • Tim Elmore on September 9, 2011 at 10:30 pm

      Great point! Sometimes rest is the answer – it’s hard to think of rest as a discipline to be practiced but that’s exactly how we should prioritize it. When I set aside a day  to plan my priorities for the upcoming year, I’m intentional about setting boundaries that provide adequate rest and relaxation. 
      What I’m advocating is being intentional about our life rather than merely completing the urgent tasks of each day. This approach allows for both meaningful productivity and adequate rest. For me, development is a sort of rest – it’s a lot like eating a meal, I don’t find it to be work – in fact I find it enjoyable :)What are ways that you’ve found to balance the two? 

  7. Fatty_ching86 on September 10, 2011 at 2:54 am

    Hi Tim,

    Thank you for the sharing, it is certainly so helpful. It’s a timely reminder.

    But honestly, i really struggle with this issue. Someone once told me to  learn to love myself abit more, the person felt that i always put other people’s need before self, to a point that i neglected myself. I find it hard to understand, and this is an issue that i still grappling with till date.

    However, i do see the need to be rested in the Lord. Not an easy task i must say. But i am learning too. I find it hard to breakthrough this mindset of mine. May the Lord help me.

    • Fatty_ching86 on September 10, 2011 at 2:58 am

      Thank you for sharing, appreciate that. I am planning for a short getaway next week. Still think what to do.Just hoping to rest in the Lord and be nourished by Him.

      If there a chance, hope that we can email correspond too 🙂  Enjoy your weekend!!

      • Tim Elmore on September 14, 2011 at 11:20 am

        I hope that short retreat will be a great chance to refresh yourself. Even though it’s just a few days, enjoy it!

    • Tim Elmore on September 14, 2011 at 11:18 am

      I’m glad you found this reminder helpful. I wish you well in finding that balance between self and others.

  8. debbie on September 10, 2011 at 8:19 am

    Excellent ideas, but one concern.  I know you probably eliminated unnecessary words in your story, but I hope your 6 areas are:  improving your communication with your creator, how to be the leader that  he designed you to be, how to a good steward of what he blessed you with, how to influence and win others to His way of thinking.   I would hate to think that you are just doing more work on the shell (or front yard) and not working on  your soul or (back yard).   Only one leads to peace.   God bless.

  9. Jackie on September 10, 2011 at 9:05 am

    Careful about “screens”  in my life, purposeful about faces.  Secret place practices ready me for public place practices.  Practically, I take a lunch break and read a book, currently “Love is the Killer App”.  When I read blogs 🙂 I typically print and share with someone…my teens often.  Helps my screen time be useful. If I can’t share what I learn I am not being intentional.

    • Tim Elmore on September 14, 2011 at 11:22 am

      Thanks for sharing – attaching intentional sharing to your screen time is a great way to measure how useful it is.

  10. L. Pung on September 12, 2011 at 2:34 am

    Thanks for this post.  The starving baker sure caught my eye.  I’ve read about it in the Habitudes but it’s quite different this time round: I’m seriously reflecting on the message it has for me.  I’m as guilty of feeding others before feeding myself.

    • Tim Elmore on September 14, 2011 at 11:23 am

      I’m glad you found it challenging and got a chance to see it in a new light!

  11. L. Pung on September 12, 2011 at 2:35 am

    By the way, I found the paragraph on how to go about getting mentors really helpful as a starter.

  12. Rfogg on April 20, 2012 at 3:16 pm

    I love this!  How can I share on Pinterest?  I just shared on my Facebook.

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The Starving Baker for Teachers